Later today, the Hawai'i House Committee on Agriculture will take up an important bill that could create new protections for children from pesticides. But if prior votes are any indication, the committee — and the industrial agricultural interests driving it — will be a tough obstacle to overcome.
We've seen this same showdown on island after island, as each county has attempted to enact new protections on the use of pesticides or pesticide-promoting genetically engineered seeds and crops. And we've also seen the force with which, each time, Monsanto and the rest of the Big 6 pesticide corporations have tried to stop these laws in their tracks.
Tied up in litigation, the fight has now moved to the state level where pesticide corporations tend to wield more influence.
Protecting schoolchildren? Or Monsanto?
The bill on the table today would create buffer zones to protect children attending schools in close proximity to hazardous pesticide use. This commonsense measure will no doubt attract tremendous pushback from the pesticide corporations who now actively engage in the state's political process.
But there is also a diverse and growing coalition of groups supporting the measure. Today's Ag Committee hearing is likely to be a long one.
While the bill already passed unanimously out of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental protection, the outcome in Ag Committee is much less certain. Unfortunately, the outcome may well run counter to clear evidence presented by scientific and health professional experts, as well as parents and communities experiencing on-the-ground effects.
According to the Hawai'i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA), this same Ag Committee voted 11-2 to advance a bill (authored by the committee chair) that would limit the rights of local governments to protect their communities from hazardous pesticides. This despite the fact that the 188 pieces of testimony submitted were 17-1 in opposition to the bill.
Standing up to the Big 6
Pesticide maker Monsanto and the so-called Hawai'i Crop Improvement Association (a lobby group for the pesticide industry) are fighting hard to keep the status quo, which includes continued use of neurotoxic pesticides in close proximity to children across the islands.
PAN and our diverse coalition of Hawaiian mothers, small farmers, environmentalists and food safety champions aren't taking the issue sitting down. We continue to grow our efforts, and even the Governor has voiced his support for the measure to protect schoolchildren.
So the Ag Committee will have to go out of its way to defeat the measure today.
Health professionals have also voiced their support for the measure. Twenty Kauaian mental health specialists penned a letter citing research by the American Academy of Pediatrics to make the case for limiting exposure of children to pesticides — with particular reference to potential harms to the developing brain.
Dr. Ryan Lee, a practicing pediatrician and director of the Neurodevelopmental Clinic at Shriners Hospital for Children on Honolulu, recently highlighted concerns around pesticide exposure and links to ADHD and autism in children.
In testimony I submitted on behalf of PAN, our members and network, I shared the same concerns and voiced support for greater disclosure of pesticide use, comprehensive public notification and no-spray buffer zones near sensitive populations, especially schoolchildren.
I also shared a quote from former Representative Samuel San Hoy Lee that has stuck with me ever since I heard it. For years, he worked to clean up drinking water contaminated by pesticides from industrial pineapple growing on Oahu.
“We approached the problem within the perspective of our times. We helped government agencies realize that the standards for pesticide use accepted a generation ago were simply not accepted today.”
Let's hope the lawmakers of today can approach the issue with the same understanding and foresight. We need better protections from pesticides today to leave a lasting legacy of health for all the islands.
Update (February 19, 6pm Hawaii Standard Time): Despite an outpouring of support, including many who traveled from across the islands, Hawaii House Agriculture Committee Chair, Clift Tsuji, deferred action on the bill, effectively killing it today, and with little justification. The remaining hope for protections for schoolchildren from hazardous pesticides is a state senate companion bill that is still alive. That bill, SB793, passed through three committees last week, and could be back before the House Agriculture Committee after it "crosses over" houses in March. So Chair Tsuji won't be able to defer action much longer; let's hope he listens to the concerns of health professionals and parents alike and adopts protections and increases transparency around the use of hazardous pesticides when presented with the opportunity again.